Fifteen miles south of Bedford, Pa., sits a 100-acre organic fruit and vegetable farm owned by Dawn and Rob Custer called Goodness Grows. The couple bought the farm in 1999, and together they grow organic soybeans for Perdue and organic grains for a whiskey distillery; operate a small goat and sheep dairy and livestock farm; host community supported agriculture for 70 members; and offer organic produce to seven restaurants, a grocery store, and five farmer’s markets.
Together – Dawn and Rob are quite the pair. He’s the agronomist, she’s the horticulturalist. They also have three sons together: Caleb, Silas, and Levi. But a few years ago, a serious incident and health diagnosis nearly changed everything.
It was January 2012. Dawn and her family were working together to cut and gather firewood – a task they had been working at for hours. It was getting dark, and Dawn was carrying wood back and forth from the site. The next thing she knew, a cut Locust tree was coming her direction – falling on top of her – hitting her head.
“It hit me square. It was a really bad head accident,” Dawn recalls. She suffered significant brain swelling and facial injuries, and lost some of her memory and the ability to access information and speech temporarily. For more than a year, Dawn suffered from post-concussion syndrome.
At first, it seemed like owning their own business was a blessing during her recovery. If Dawn wasn’t feeling well enough to work, her husband took care of her tasks around the farm. But as her brain injury healed, her joints and body began hurting. She wasn’t sure what was going on.
That’s when Dawn was delivered a second blow.
A blood test confirmed that Dawn had rheumatoid arthritis. The impact of the diagnosis on her work at the farm would be significant.
“What we do around the farm is hard work, and my husband and I were facing some tough questions about the future of our farm with my limitations. I need to be there to help. I want to be there,” Dawn said.
She started searching online for resources and help. Within a few clicks, she came across AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians (AgrAbility PA) and the state’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR). She reached out and not long after that she was undergoing a farm assessment with an AgrAbility PA staff member, and an occupational therapist and farm coordinator with OVR, to uncover the limitations of her day to day work on the farm.
Dawn felt most of the pain in her hips and hands, which is very common with rheumatoid arthritis. She could hardly move her body after a day of pulling weeds or picking produce. Carrying the 50-pound crates of vegetables 1,000 feet from the field to packing shed was no longer possible for her.
Dawn with the Eco Weeder.
Recommendations were made on some specific pieces of assistive technology that would allow Dawn to perform her usual tasks around the farm. OVR provided funding for Dawn to purchase a Pendragon work cart, sit and scoot garden cart, pull-behind Eco Weeder for their tractor, and a John Deere gator utility vehicle for hauling produce crates.
“I’m able to be as productive as I used to be,” Dawn said. “With the assistance I received from AgrAbility PA and OVR, we no longer ask the question: should we remain in farming? Our farm has a bright future ahead. We had a great year in 2015.”
Dawn is thrilled to be back to daily farm work and life. And she offers a parting message to not only young farmers entering the industry, but also to those who have long been in it.
“As we encourage young farmers to explore careers in agriculture, it is important for them to take care of their body. Farming is brutal on your body, and we need to get it into people’s minds earlier to exercise safety and good ergonomics. The other side of that is that the average farmer in Pennsylvania is in their 50s, and as we age and remain in farming, programs like AgrAbility PA are critical to the success of the future of farming.”
Learn more about the Custer’s farm, Goodness Grows, at goodnessgrowspa.com.